Dreary "Suspiria" Update Pales In Comparison To Original

Intrepid is any filmmaker who follows up a work as luxurious and tender as last year’s “Call Me By Your Name” with a piece as punishing as this year’s “Suspiria.” With the latter, Italian director Luca Guadagnino unveils almost the diametric opposite of his recent Oscar contender. The films’ similarities begin and end in subconscious carnality; characters being moved by forces they can’t begin to know. But where “Call Me” invites like a downy old blanket, “Suspiria” is a bed of nails: sadistic in content, pretense, and running time.

The movie is, of course, a reimagining of the 1977 witchcraft splatterfest of the same name (helmed by Guadagnino’s elder countryman Dario Argento). The bare bones narrative of Argento’s film was and remains an enormous part of its success, giving way to an intoxicating bouquet of production design and score. Goblin’s art-rock soundtrack retains its demonic power to this day. The movie is scary.

Conversely, Guadagnino and American screenwriter David Kajganich grossly overcompensate for Argento’s skeletal story, their version coming in almost an hour longer. Padded with vain political commentary (the setting is Germany circa 1977) and intentionally impenetrable asides, the effect is a textbook illustration of more being less. The extra hour itself isn’t a deathblow, but its overall dreariness is, tracing to a laughable finale that doesn’t stand a chance against the worst of Argento’s original, much less its best.

Dakota Johnson (“Fifty Shades Of Grey”) stars as Susie Bannon, an Ohioan admitted to the prestigious Markos Dance Academy in West Berlin. The screenplay makes no attempt to conceal the coven of witches at its center, throwing Susie into the lions’ den straightaway. The stone-faced Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) is the outfit’s lead choreographer and de facto matriarch, quickly elevating our protagonist to lead in the company’s latest production.

But an elevation requires a demotion. A dancer named Olga, now the production’s ex-lead, ends up trapped in a creepy basement studio full of mirrors. Floors above, Susie dances, her movements remotely contorting Olga’s limbs to the brink of death and then over.

This is as frightening as “Suspiria” 2018 gets. The color-soaked mayhem of Argento’s movie never materializes, Guadagnino instead opting for a washed out look that makes for a perfect avatar for the project’s misuse of Tilda Swinton. The Oscar-winner plays two additional supporting roles, wasting away under layers of elaborate yet utterly unconvincing prosthetics in both of them. Most of her scenes are tragically dull.

Perhaps most head scratching of all: Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke’s attempt to follow his bandmate Jonny Greenwood into film scoring. Greenwood, having scored every Paul Thomas Anderson film since “There Will Be Blood,” has steadily become one of the best in the business. (Look to his “Phantom Thread” score for hard evidence.) But Yorke seems as hamstrung by Guadagnino’s film as audiences are likely to be, writing to the movie like he might write to still photographs. So intent is he on capturing mood – or occasionally subverting it – that his music here plays like another in a line of disappointing solo albums.

But at least Yorke’s score can be consumed on its own in just 80 minutes.

The film it accompanies drones on nearly twice as long, practically daring viewers to mine something – anything – from the experience. Those eager to give Guadagnino the benefit of the doubt will find plenty of room for interpretation in the pic’s endless (arguably meaningless) symbolism and garish, inadvertently hilarious climax. Thinkpieces should come easy. But if “Suspiria” 1977 was the world’s most decadent Cherries Jubilee, “Suspiria” 2018 is an oversized glob of gray mystery dessert. Dig in at your own peril.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Bad)

Release Date: October 26, 2018 (Limited)
Studio: Amazon Studios
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Screenwriter: David Kajganich
Starring: Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Mia Goth, Chloe Grace Moretz, Jessica Harper